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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Try separate the wood from the trees:
MI5, Sinn Fein/IRA and the intelligence war


Paul Maguire • Forum Magazine, Feb-Mar 2006

For three decades British intelligence pursued a dual strategy vis-à-vis the provisional movement. This parallel strategy had as its twin objectives a gradual diminution of the IRA's militarily capacity and a concurrent strengthening of the position of those within the provisional leadership who were pioneering a constitutional reformist agenda. Well placed MI5 agents within both the IRA and Sinn Fein were essential for the successful attainment of these twin objectives. The exposure of Denis Donaldson and Freddie Scapaticci as British agents illustrates the extent to which the higher echelons of both the political and military wings of the provisional movement had been infiltrated by MI5. These revelations also undermine - in very stark terms - the veracity of Gerry Adams' repeated assertion that the IRA is an undefeated army.

Paving the way

By the mid-1980s Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were privately determined to guide the provisional movement down a purely constitutional path. The 1981 election of hunger-strikers and the 1983 election of Gerry Adams as MP for West Belfast highlighted a previously untapped reservoir of political support which whetted the appetite of those Adamsistas who wished to exchange armed struggle for the ballot box. By May 1987 Gerry Adams felt confident enough to secretly present Charles Haughey with a 15 page document outlining the terms for an IRA ceasefire and the creation of "a pan-nationalist front". Although the vast majority of IRA volunteers and a minority of the IRA Army Council were totally unaware of this development, it was clearly only a matter of "when" and not "if" an IRA ceasefire would transpire.

British intelligence was wholly cognisant of these internal shifts. However, the defeat of the IRA or the diminution of its capacity to wage war remained its primary objective. This would not only eradicate the explosion of bombs on the streets of London [a perennial concern of the successive British governments], but also strengthen the hand of those within the provisional movement who were promoting a new purely political approach.

British intelligence recruited informants, imprisoned experienced IRA activists and ambushed and executed hardline active service units as part of its campaign to weaken the IRA. An iron fist was brought to bear on republican heartlands hostile to the new Adams-McGuinness strategy. For example, the hardline and vehemently anti-Adams IRA East Tyrone Brigade was practically decimated by a combination of British intelligence gathering and the deployment of the SAS. By the early 1990s the IRA's armed campaign appeared increasingly unproductive and inefficient. The din of internal voices supporting the "peace strategy" grew louder. Who among Adams' hardline opponents could convincing argue that armed struggle remained a viable means to deliver political progress, when all evidence suggested otherwise?

MI5 and the IRA

British intelligence was relentless and extremely successful in infiltrating the IRA. Freddie Scapaticci's recruitment as a British agent was a major MI5 coup and perhaps one of the single most important turning points in its intelligence war against the IRA. As head of security and intelligence Scapaticci had full access to every IRA department. No person was better placed to provide MI5 with a topographical survey of the IRA and a breakdown of its personnel. Furthermore, his involvement in numerous IRA internal inquiries would also have enabled him to identify individual personal weaknesses among various republican activists and provide MI5 with priceless information that could prove useful in turning other agents. But it would be extremely naive to think that Scapaticci is the only senior IRA member to turn informant. Indeed some have argued he may not even be the agent code-named 'Stakeknife', as MI5 never exposes an agent unless another is equally or better placed to provide similar high grade intelligence.

Although Freddie Scappaticci and Sean O'Callaghan [former Adjutant-General IRA Southern Command] are perhaps two of the best known IRA apostates, there have been other traitors of a similar or higher rank whose names have been withheld from both the IRA rank and file and the general public. In 1996 the IRA uncovered another MI5 agent within its higher echelons. John Carroll was a senior member of the IRA Southern Command and an elected Sinn Fein councillor in County Offaly when he was recruited by MI5. He was exposed as a British agent after an indepth IRA investigation into his suspicious travelling habits and his personal finances. However, Carroll was spared a summary execution because of the political damage it might cause Sinn Fein and the negative impact such a revelation might have on IRA volunteers at a sensitive time in the peace process. The entire sordid saga was kept well under wraps. It is believed that over the years Carroll possessed sensitive information concerning the IRA's "England campaign" and was responsible for numerous operations being compromised. However, the true extent of the damage he inflicted on the IRA will never be established.

What is indisputable is that MI5 was singularly successful in infiltrating the higher echelons of the IRA. The IRA's intelligence and security department was basically administered by British intelligence. The IRA Executive [one of the highest IRA decision making bodies], the Southern Command and the GHQ Department [the body responsible for the day to day running of the IRA] were also compromised.

By the early 1990s the lines separating sections of the IRA hierarchy and British intelligence were most definitely blurred. Indeed it sends a shiver down one's spine when one considers the odds stacked against IRA volunteers in the field. The bleakness of this scenario is further compounded when one takes into account the fact that a majority of the IRA leadership was, for close on two decades, only too prepared to accept far less than what its volunteers were fighting, dying and being sent to prison for. However, the fact remains that by 1994 the IRA was thoroughly infiltrated and rendered militarily impotent. One aspect of MI5's dual-strategy was - for the most part - completed.

MI5 and Sinn Fein

While weakening or defeating the IRA remained its primary objective, MI5 did not ignore or dismiss developments within Sinn Fein. MI5 monitored all internal political discussions and even contributed to those debates through well-placed agents and thereby influenced the political trajectory of the movement. It is a well document fact that the Adams-McGuinness leadership is surrounded by a "revolutionary think-tank" comprised of current or former IRA volunteers and veteran Sinn Fein members. If it had been previously suggested that some of these prominent republicans were British agents, Sinn Fein spin doctors would have treated the accusation with contempt. But not any more. The image of a smug Denis Donaldson flanked on the steps of Stormont by Adams and McGuinness, while both party leaders hailed his virtue and innocence, rests absurdly alongside the spectacle of the Sinn Fein president, only seventy-two hours later, informing a party press conference that their head of administration in Stormont was expelled for unsuspected treason stretching over a 20 year period.

Donaldson shed crocodile tears for the "suffering and pain" his actions have caused over a twenty year period. As is the case with Scapaticci, O'Callaghan and Carroll, we will never know how many people he dispatched to an early grave or consigned to a grey prison cell. Sinn Fein attempted to diminish Donaldson's importance in the public mind. But what cannot be denied is that Donaldson was part of the Adams-McGuinness "think tank" and that he was a stalwart defender not only of that leadership but also the peace process - a position entirely consistent with his secret life as a MI5 operative. Donaldson also participated in all major strategic debates within the provisionals over the previous two decades. He reorganised the Sinn Fein US support network, where he replaced traditional republicans with loyal Adamsistas. Donaldson was also a key aid during the negotiations that led to the Belfast Agreement. What an invaluable asset he must have been for his MI5 handlers? We know Sinn Fein was operating a spy-ring at Stormont, as thousands of documents were uncovered. But was this a subterfuge? Was Donaldson's "handlers" feeding bogus intelligence to the Sinn Fein leadership, thus swaying opinion and influencing sensitive political decisions? Obviously British intelligence was well aware of the party's negotiating bottom line long before negotiations commenced.

But just as Scapaticci was not the only senior MI5 informant within the IRA, it is naive to imagine that Donaldson is the only senior British agent within Sinn Fein. Speculation concerning key MI5 agents at the heart of the Adams-McGuinness leadership has reached fever pitch over recent weeks. Recently the PSNI Special Branch has attempted to exacerbate these rumours by visiting numerous prominent Belfast provisionals in the company of a flotilla of landrovers and furniture removal vans. Such is the level of internal paranoia, key Sinn Fein apparatchiks, such as Jim Gibney, have publicly urged party members "to remain calm and to hold their heads high". Gerry Adams has stated that he believes further prominent provisionals may be exposed as MI5 agents at a future date. Upon what information is this opinion based? Has the Sinn Fein president any evidence of MI5 agents among his party leadership, which he has been reluctant to disclose lest it lower party morale?

Only a fool could believe that the Sinn Fein leadership has not been heavily infiltrated by MI5. In fact, since the early 1990s, a section of the IRA has held a longstanding suspicion regarding the bona fides of some prominent Sinn Fein members. In 1994 the spotlight of distrust fell upon the prominent Sinn Fein negotiator, Mitchell McLaughlin, after the IRA received reports that McLaughlin was engaged in unauthorised and protracted contact with a senior British civil servant in Whitehall. At a sensitive time in the peace process, the IRA leadership chose not to abduct McLaughlin in order to avoid adverse media publicity and lower party morale. Instead he was invited to attend a meeting with several IRA members on the grounds that they wished to interview him about certain matters in Derry. The IRA investigators detained and interrogated McLaughlin for a significant period of time. However, the IRA leadership was later informed that the outcome of the internal investigation was "inconclusive".

Unlikely partners?

The Sinn Fein leadership may denounce the Scapaticcis and Donaldsons of this world. But I would argue that they lack the moral authority to do so. Where lies the difference between a republican turned British agent and a republican turned Minister of the Crown? Both are employed by, and receive payment from, the British state. Both function to preserve and administer British rule in Ireland. Both are morally and politically repugnant, albeit to varying degrees.

In the final analysis few can deny that the outcome of the Adams-McGuinness "peace strategy" mirrored MI5's longstanding objectives towards the IRA. MI5 and the Adams-McGuinness leadership gradually sought a termination of the armed campaign in favour of an exclusively democratic approach. MI5 guarded British sovereignty over the North and upheld the continued existence of the northern state within the "United Kingdom" - a constitutional reality which the Sinn Fein/IRA leadership has now embraced. So just as it is reasonable to ask where lies the dividing line between certain senior members of the Provisional IRA and British intelligence, is it not just as reasonable to ask where lies the dividing line between the Adams-McGuinness "peace strategy" and British intelligence's favoured solution for militant Irish republicanism? If you have the stomach, try and separate the wood from the trees.





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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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20 February 2006

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